Digital Education in Times of Climate Crisis

Submitted by ICA Editor | published 18th Jul 2022 | last updated 21st Sep 2022
Graphic - going up steps

Lessons Learnt

Digital Education in Times of Climate Crisis: University of Edinburgh Centre for Research in Digital Education, June 23, 2022 Webinar with Neil Selwyn, Monash University, Australia and Sian Bayne, University of Edinburgh Centre for Research in Digital Education and Professor 

First things first, as I begin my response to @Neil Selwyn, @Sian Bayne and @George Veletsianos, here is some background about who-I-am. I am not an ed-tech research insider, but an avid reader of ed-tech scholarship. For many years I interacted at conferences and through projects with the ed-tech community. From 2002 to 2017, my professional interest in ed-tech was as a practitioner, not a research scholar, through leadership roles in teaching and learning centres in post-secondary institutions in Western Canada (Royal Roads University - Victoria, BC, University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business- Vancouver, BC, and SAIT Polytechnic - Calgary Alberta). Prior to working in the post-secondary sector, I led the creation of an early ed-tech “start-up firm” (Knowledge Architecture Inc., 1995-2000), focused on integrating ICT into service-learning curricula for Canadian high school students through a prototype learning management system, called Studio A, funded by contracts with provincial ministries of education. The Knowledge Architecture adventure was an outcome of intersecting interests with school-age kids who were learning who-knows-what in Grade 3 computer labs circa 1995, and the need to move on from my early career, characterized by head sores from the glass ceilings I hit as a project manager for a large systems integration firm and as a program manager in mid-90’s internet emergence in the telecom sector.  My business partner at Knowledge Architecture was Dr. John Willinsky who applied what we learned about “public knowledge” to his later prolific work in open access and the Public Knowledge Project

I share this career background to illustrate my experience in higher ed, ed-tech, open educational practices, and the tech sector.

Directors of Teaching and Learning Centres have historically been focused on supporting wise practices in technology-enabled teaching and learning on behalf of their institutions, and their teaching faculty, with functional units which provide support for curriculum design, teaching excellence, and integration of ed-tech. From my perspective, there are new and important opportunities for teaching and learning centres’ influence on higher education, with a focus on advancing climate change competencies in all curricula.  

Remember the mantra that instructional designers were schooled to articulate when working with faculty/instructors that “it’s not about the technology, it’s about the pedagogy?” In this fraught age of environmental and societal change, which is happening at an overwhelming pace so extreme that it is an existential crisis, as we reel from fires and floods while trying to imagine our children’s future. It’s time to add to that mantra that it’s no longer just about how we teach-and-learn, but about how we integrate critical futures pedagogy into our practices. Building on many decades of the work of John Dewey, Paolo Freire and education-sociologist activists like Henry Giroux, the most important critical pedagogy approach we need to integrate into curricula today is the integration of climate change and eco-justice know-how and know-what, into every discipline, academic program, sector, and community in our society.   

In 2017, I segued from leading Royal Roads University (RRU) Centre for Teaching and Educational Technologies with all the responsibilities of ed-tech support for a primarily online university, to instead working as an educational consultant in Dr. Robin Cox’s Resilience by Design Lab, based at RRU. The Adaptation Learning Network: Inspiring Climate Action initiative garnered multi-year funding in 2018 from the Canadian federal government and the BC Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy to:

·        develop and deliver broadly accessible curriculum, focused on climate adaptation topics;

·        build a climate adaptation competency framework; and

·        develop networks of shared interest amongst engineers, foresters, biologists, city planners, and others who work at the coalface of the climate crisis.

Ed-tech researchers and practitioners take note - Dr. Cox recruited me for this capacity-building initiative explicitly because of my background in curricula, ed-tech, open education, and emergent innovations in higher education, such as micro-credentials.  

One of the basic tenets of Adaptation Learning Network (ALN) was to quickly create collaborations amongst and between many post-secondary institutions. From Oct 2018 to March 2022, ALN facilitated the development and delivery of climate adaptation curricula for working professionals, through 6 BC universities and their continuing studies units. These universities brought their climate adaptation researchers and educators, including IPCC scientists, public policy scholars, and community development experts into the initiative.

In the early stages of the project, I needed to learn a whole new language that was beyond my digital transformation and educational development background, about the intersection of practices in disaster risk reduction and climate adaptation, the SENDAI framework, how UN SDGs might inform the project, the emergence of natural asset management in municipalities, the basics of climate science, and figuring out how to spot the Orwellian talk of NetZero aspirations and cleantech policies. My educational background in climate change mitigation, adaptation and sustainability science prior to this initiative was pretty sketchy, to say the least. I have always had environmental awareness plus engagement in some minor activism on climate change and sustainability issues, and I had made typical middle-class “progressive” family choices along the way, with a primarily vegetarian diet, early adoption of an electric vehicle, and many years of concern and suspicion about the effects of the oil and gas sector in Western Canada. But it was my leadership skills at the intersection of ed-tech and curricula that gave me the edge to be the Program Manager of this climate adaptation capacity-building initiative, and I am grateful that Dr. Cox opened a door of renewed purpose for me.  Like Selwyn, I did not want to carry on “talking digital”, with no context to the real issue of our times, the climate crisis. I want to help shift influence at the center of what higher education actually does – create and mobilize knowledge through digital networks and open educational resources, influencing  societal shifts through research, teaching, digital networks and open educational resources.

Why do I share this level of detail? Because the role this community of ed-tech scholars and practitioners can play in the climate crisis is to leverage what we know, and to use the axis of influence we play in higher education (research, teaching and applied practice) into what we need to do.  And as Selwyn frequently points out in his talk, more technology is not the solution to any problem; instead, we need a new lens of thinking-and-doing, about how to leverage both post-secondary research expertise, and our purpose in teaching, using the digital learning networks that we have helped create. While we must continue to influence the cessation of the atrocities of ed-tech, such as exam surveillance, we must also turn our gaze and our intellectual energy to helping higher education lead climate action.

That sounds aspirational, but through my following comments drawn from my experience in Adaptation Learning Network, let’s work with the art of the possible.

Here are the foundational structures of what we accomplished through Adaptation Learning Network (ALN):

  • Developed and delivered 30 offerings of 11 online courses on climate adaptation topics (e.g., planning for climate impacts), built with design approaches for engagement, and encouragement to continue learning through CoPs, and practical actions specifically for working professionals, but open to all.

  • Integrated online CoPs into the learning, to create ongoing connections between experts and novices, to continually advance new knowledge about how to plan for and deal with climate change impacts; enriching conversations at the local, regional, transdisciplinary and trans-sector levels (e.g., we are initiating the use of Earthnet as our platform for this level of engagement and to continuously foster climate knowledge sharing amongst and between disciplines and sectors)

  • Open, open, open – all courses and artefacts developed through ALN are Creative Commons licensed and can be found in several open educational resource repositories (e.g., weADAPT, OER Commons, BCcampus OER) – this is an intentional approach to assure critical applied knowledge about what to do about climate change is available, now, and not stuck behind the firewalls of learning management systems and publishers. Here are some examples

  • Integration of Indigenous Knowledges and Perspectives into the core curriculum of our new Climate Action microcreds, as an important acknowledgement that there are longstanding approaches to ecosystem sustainability that our capitalist extractive culture has ignored.

  • Turning courses into microcreds, and applying emergent international standards to microcreds (e.g. drawing from the work of Beverly Oliver)  as ways and means of quickly advancing upskilling for a climate changed world that is impatient for these skills to diffuse in the workforce. RRU’s Professional and Continuing Studies unit is in the process of launching a series of microcreds that will give credit for the competencies people gain through stacking these courses into a 100-hour microcred.  

  • Leveraging the experience of Adaptation Learning Network into new ventures – such as CanAdapt, a national initiative for climate adaptation capacity building through courses and communities of practice; and a fresh new applied research project, focused on climate change workforce development.

  • Continually working to influence our university climate action plans (Dr. Robin Cox was a key contributor to Royal Roads University’s Climate Action Plan)

For a detailed video-rich narrative to think about how to do advance climate action in your own university and networks, check out the Adaptation Learning Network Final Report.  

There are many others contributing to climate action in higher education. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education is one of several networks to tap into. People who work in environmental humanities research, in climate science research; and in many social science and applied disciplines; people developing academic programming around climate change and sustainability (e.g. UBC Okanagan’s new Bachelor of Sustainability ); Bryan Alexander’s work on climate change and higher education as part of his Futures practice, which includes his recent book club reading for the higher ed community of the 2021 IPCC Report (2022) and Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 (2021); plus his Future Trends Forum in July 2022 on the response of campuses to climate change with regards to physical infrastructure.

What does all this mean for ed-tech scholars? 

It means expanding your networks and interests into the many nooks and crannies where climate change conversations and projects are taking place, in higher education research labs, in new curricula efforts, in professional communities, in NGOs, in companies, in your own municipality, and in activist communities. While I am not against working towards reducing the carbon footprint of what information and communications technology has wrought, there are more significant ways that ed-tech scholars might influence and alter the mess of a climate-changed world. Talk about it everywhere, get to know the climate change and sustainability research community in your own university, influence curricula everywhere and on every topic, and apply what you know about creating networks of purpose and open educational resources to advance broad know-what and know-how, perhaps with some momentum around development and use of convivial tools, as mentioned by Selwyn. Yes, we need a radical learning approach, that embeds climate understanding and justice for all, in every discipline, every sector, every profession, every community.

People in ed-tech are well-positioned to make their mark, just as I have experienced, not as technologists or as science and technology anthropologists or directors of teaching and learning centres, but as skilled connectors of critical futures pedagogy, with ideas and knowledge to help change the trajectory of the climate crisis.